By Laura Warner
I started university, two and a half years ago, as a fresh-faced nineteen year old — ready to take on the world, or rather the university campus.
But nothing could have prepared me for how overwhelming the whole experience was. Moving out of my secluded Sussex village into an 8-storey block of university halls at the end of Tottenham Court road was both exciting and exhausting; making new friends and trying new things came with its own mix of luck and difficulty, new friendship and separation. And I developed a love-hate relationship with the subject I’d chosen to study.
As a wiser and slightly haggard twenty-two year old I can honestly say that I’ve failed to make the absolute most of my time at university. I’m ok with that, because I did what I thought what was right at the time, but I do know what I’d do differently next time round…
1. Go to the right university to study the right subject
Dedicate time to thinking about what it is you want to study, which might involve thinking about what you want to do after you graduate — like if you’re going to study something like Medicine or Architecture. Don’t feel too constrained by the subjects you studied at A Level. In retrospect, I wish I’d studied Politics or International Relations instead of Geography — but never considered it since I’d not studied those disciplines at school.
Remember to research the courses available: know what modules you’re going to be studying; what trips, overseas opportunities, placement years are on offer; how many hours of teaching you will receive; how you’ll be assessed. It can feel like it’s far too early to be thinking about these things, but if you’re much better at coursework than exams, or you’re interested in studying abroad, choose courses that allow you to do this rather than face disappointment later on.
Visit universities! I was too lazy to do this, reinforced by the fact that the majority of the universities I was applying to were far away. This meant that I didn’t get a proper feel for the other options available to me, and spent the majority of my first year wondering ‘What if I’d gone to….’ You’ll never know what your university experience would have been like if you’d gone somewhere else, but you’ll have had a sense of what that university was like and whether it may or may not have been right for you.
2. Get involved
Going to university can be a really daunting process: moving away from home, being plonked in a flat with people you don’t know, getting used to a new town, city or even country, and adjusting to university life — which is very different from school. In amongst all of this, it can feel really difficult to manage and take on more new things, but sometimes this is the best thing you can do. In my time at university I’ve been involved in a number of societies but I know I definitely could have done more and made more of the opportunities available. University is the prime opportunity to continue with a hobby or interest, explore a new skill (I tried to learn Arabic…), and to make new friends from outside your course or your halls with similar interests to you. It will keep you busy, it will offer a much needed break from academia, and your future employer will want to know what you’ve done aside from your degree.
Remember that your choices aren’t limited to university societies. When we’re at university it’s very easy to become trapped in a bubble, and avoiding engaging with the other people and places around you. I joined a volunteer programme organised by the Foreign Office, a nationwide volunteer scheme run by the Royal Geographical Society and wrote for a couple of different publications as a student blogger. It gave me the opportunity to meet other people, students and non-students, from other universities or cities, with different jobs and motivations and backgrounds. It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done whilst at university.
3. Keep on top of it
I’d heard the tales of students pulling all-nighters and spending energy drink-fuelled days in the library and anticipated it to be an inevitability of university life. It’s absolutely not. Some will argue that it’s part of the student experience, others will point out that’s it’s unnecessary stress, exhaustion and will never enable you to deliver your best work. Universities will always give you plenty of notice as to when essays, coursework, presentations are due and, if you organise your time well, you will have the time to get it done without staying up until 4am the night before the deadline. If you can start off university keeping on top of things, doing a bit of reading, going to most of your lectures and leaving yourself plenty of time to write and revise, you will be fine. If you start off university doing this, you’ll set yourself up with a good routine for the rest of your time there. When the work load does really does pile up in your final year, you’ll know how to manage it and meet all your deadlines with minimum stress involved!
4. Talk to people
Talk to people, talk to everyone! Make friends, make contacts, chat to your lecturers — they’re people too. Going to university is probably the best experience you’ll ever have to meet new people, often people you’d never otherwise get to know. In my time at university, I’ve made friends from as far as Singapore and the USA, from Exeter, from Manchester, from London. I’ve been lectured by academics from Russia, from Italy and who worked at the UN. I’ve spent days at the Foreign Office, a week in Yorkshire with aspiring Geography students, and hours in schools talking to kids about what going to university is like. They’re all friendships and opportunities that you don’t establish without talking to people — and they’ve allowed me to make some of the most kind and interesting friends, and embark on novel and unexpected experiences. Step out of your comfort zone — you never know what might happen!
5. Get your money’s worth
Whether it’s a 2:1, an internship with an investment bank or a wife — know what you want from university and work out how you’re going to get it. I like learning and I wanted to go to university to learn new things about subjects I’m interested in; I wanted to make new friends; I wanted to be part of a community; I wanted to gain a qualification which would ultimately help me get a job I enjoy doing.
And yet, I found myself finishing my second year unsatisfied — disappointed that my course was neither as academically or personally engaged as I’d hoped, and frustrated that I was paying so much money for a course that was underwhelming and I was not enjoying. I expressed this dissatisfaction through my personal blog, which was picked up by my department, and I was involved in suggesting improvements and helping to transform the department into a more stimulating, caring and community-driven environment. My third year is a million times better and I’m really glad I spoke up for myself and for other students to make sure I got what I deserved from my university experience, and what I wanted. All I’ve got left to work out now is how to get that dream job…!
I don’t know if anyone ever leaves university feeling like they’ve truly made the most of it: that they’ve taken all the opportunities presented to them, been involved with everything they wanted to do, and made all the wonderful friends they possibly could have. But, I hope these suggestions are useful guidance and will help you get just a little bit more out of your time there. University is a time to be selfish, and to do things for yourself — so make sure you’re doing what you love in a place you love with people you love. If you’re not happy, don’t be afraid to make it known.
About the author
Laura Warner is a 3rd year Geography student at University College London — a final year student simultaneously fearing and welcoming graduate life. Always looking for opportunities to do something different, meaningful and make a change. Forever fighting the system!
My favourite brew is… I’m a herbal tea kind of girl. My superpower is … Compulsive organisation, and making the perfect baked potato. I really get annoyed when … I see all the people with dogs and is sad she can’t get one.